Watching a Robert Altman film can feel like slipping into a warm bath. His method is the antidote to the solipsism of the typical auteur filmmaker; he reminds you that the world is full of people pursuing their own agendas, and he upsets the usual hierarchy by allowing even the most minor supporting characters a moment or two to establish their individual desires and obsessions. Altman has said that he believes life is about a lot of things all at once, and his unique gift is to give all of them consequence. There’s a mood he creates through the interplay of the cast and his loose, roaming camera that allows us to sit back, relax, and ride the rolling waves of good humor and fellow-feeling. Altman coasts on this sensation a bit more than he should in the rambling, plot-lite A Prairie Home Companion, but the movie is such a gentle, enjoyable ride that I didn’t much mind.
The film is, of course, based on Garrison Keillor’s popular, long-running radio variety show, which I’ve never listened to, so I have no idea how its fans may react to the film. But, approaching it in ignorance, I found the film a plausible representation of a world where old-time show-business values remain largely untouched by 21st-century concerns, where singing cowboys offer up a gently bawdy tune or a tame dirty joke and snigger with a kind of blameless naughtiness and family acts sing sweet, gently religious gospel songs unaware of this country’s growing evangelical fervor and so-called Culture Wars.
Altman and Keillor — who wrote the screenplay with a little help from TV writer Ken LaZebnik — have been doing what they do long enough that they aren’t much concerned with current trends or appealing to the rapacious, easily bored contemporary audience. Their only nod to current celebrity culture is in the casting of tabloid favorite Lindsay Lohan as a sweet-but-troubled teen. And then Altman and Keillor do what might have seemed impossible at this late date: They purify her, making her seem sweet and wholesome again, if a bit angsty. While the making of the film may have had little impact on her extracurricular activities, it at least provides us with an image of her that we haven’t seen since the days of Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, and it allows her to remind us that she actually can act — and she’s a pretty good singer to boot.
Lohan plays Lola Johnson, daughter to Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and niece to Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), the singing Johnson Sisters (there used to be four … but I’ll let them explain). Yolanda is an aging but still lusty beauty and Keillor’s former lover; Rhonda is her blowsy, seen-it-all older sister, who cares for little more than a few extra minutes of airtime and a chance to play the songs of her choosing. Tomlin is an Altman veteran, having appeared in Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts, but this is the first time Streep and Altman have worked together, though you wouldn’t know it by watching her. Streep has long been a virtuoso technician, but her early performances were so studied that she rarely seemed able to bring much of herself into a role. In recent years, though, she’s loosened up and become a more natural — and consequently more beguiling — screen presence. It’s doubtful that the younger Streep could have worked with Altman — could she have handled his loose, improvisational methods? — but here she’s light and easy, and Altman brings out a sensual, carnal quality that gives her beauty a luster I can’t recall having seen in her before.
Streep and Tomlin don’t look much alike, but they have the relaxed interplay and faded grudges of siblings who have known each other too long and too well either to completely get along or to come into real conflict. Rhonda resents the way Keillor favors Yolanda; Yolanda resents the way he keeps her at arm’s length, never offering any explanation for his reticence. The film ends without ever venturing a reason their romance foundered, and that’s just one of the loose ends that Keillor’s script doesn’t trouble itself to tie up. He and Altman aren’t interested in resolving every issue they raise or even developing much of a plot; what they want to do is simply to capture a moment in time that never took place. Like many of Altman’s films, the movie plays like a fictional documentary.
Companion lacks the scope of Altman’s big-canvas films like Nashville — which gave a fair impression of that city’s ethos in the period immediately after Watergate — or Short Cuts — which captured both a cross-section of life in Los Angeles and of humanity more generally. Here you don’t get the full breadth of Keillor’s radio show, let alone any larger sense of its world, yet the film reaches for a broad exploration of existential issues, with a little bit of birth and a whole lot of death. It takes place over the performance of a single episode of the “Companion” — the last episode ever, as their radio station has been bought and the theater where they perform will soon make way for a parking lot — in which the Johnson Sisters share the bill with a singer named Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones), cowboy duo Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and actual show regulars Jearlyn Steele, Prudence Johnson, and Robin and Linda Williams (no, not that Robin Williams). Prowling around backstage alongside the performers are Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), the Chandlerian private eye who’s responsible for the theater’s security, Molly (Maya Rudolph), a hugely pregnant producer exasperated by Keillor’s leisurely approach to the show (he seems a natural collaborator for the famously laissez-faire Altman), and Virginia Madsen as a mysterious woman in white who’s there on a mission of her own. While the show is coming to its end, a minor character dies and all the others face an unknowable future without the program that has been both a showcase for their talents and a surrogate home and family.
Altman doesn’t do much here that he hasn’t done before — and much of it better — but he does it with such ease and elan that it’s impossible not to get caught up in it all. I don’t think I stopped grinning until an hour into the film, and only then because I was swept into melancholy by the film’s first intimations of mortality. Altman is 81 now, and suffering from a variety of ailments, so death is naturally on his mind. A Prairie Home Companion may turn out to be his last film and, while I hope he’s got time for another dozen or so, it wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on. While his infirmities may slow down his body, his mind is as lively and perceptive as ever.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
A Prairie Home Companion / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | June 9, 2006 | Comments ()